Cappie Pondexter/Anna Cruz
Essence Carson/Chucky Jeffery/Sugar Rodgers
Alex Montgomery/Toni Young
Plenette Pierson/DeLisha Milton-Jones
Tina Charles/Kara Braxton
plus the injured Kamiko Williams, who they can’t replace because she tore her ACL in training camp and therefore has to be paid her salary for this season – and they don’t have the remaining cap space to sign someone else if they cut her.
Significant additions: Charles, Carson back from injury, black uniforms
Significant losses: Kelsey Bone, Leilani Mitchell
There are lots of positives for the New York Liberty heading into this season. They got their second superstar when Tina Charles decided she’d had enough of Connecticut and wanted to come home. Essence Carson is back after blowing out her ACL four games into last season. They’re back in Madison Square Garden after three years exiled to New Jersey due to renovations. They’re reverting to the black road uniforms that no one ever wanted them to get rid of in the first place. Cappie Pondexter and Bill Laimbeer have had a full year to get to know each other and find a fit for this team that should work. So why does it still feel like this team has a lot more questions than answers circling around it going into 2014?
A central part of the problem is just what else is there besides the stars. Yes, Carson is back to help Pondexter out in the backcourt, take on some of the scoring load, and generally give them better options on the perimeter than they had last year. But we don’t know quite what she’ll produce coming off a serious knee injury, or if her body will hold up for 34 games. Talking of bodies holding up, that’s a question mark elsewhere as well. Plenette Pierson, a very good forward in this league for a lot of years, struggled through much of last season with a variety of injuries. Then she suffered another knee injury late in her season overseas that her European team called an ACL tear. Laimbeer has said it wasn’t as serious as initially reported, and apparently she’s been running in camp, but no one is remotely sure what she’ll be able to produce this season. Her body already seemed to be breaking down last year, so adding one more major issue on top is not good news for an important player for the Liberty.
That leaves lots of kids, unknowns and role players trying to fill holes on the Liberty roster. DeLisha Milton-Jones has an awful lot of miles on her clock, and looked just about done last year in stints with San Antonio and then New York. She’ll be playing significant minutes if Pierson isn’t ready. Kara Braxton will be her usual enigmatic self, showing flashes of real talent one moment, before Bad Kara emerges and does three things that make you want to throw something at her. Toni Young showed off her athleticism last season as a rookie, but not a lot else, and she’s still a combo-forward who hasn’t proven she can play either spot effectively until we see otherwise. Alex Montgomery is a hard-working, decent wing who might be starting at small forward due to the lack of alternatives.
The other perimeter backups are Anna Cruz, a Spanish combo-guard making her first foray into WNBA basketball. She has played some point guard, and she might be Pondexter’s backup on this roster, but this is by no means Celine Dumerc that they’ve added. Cruz is decent, but that’s about it, and the history of Euros translating their ‘decent’ play over to the WNBA isn’t great. Chucky Jeffery is back as well, and might be the alternative backup ballhandler if Cruz doesn’t work out. We didn’t see much of her last year in Minnesota or New York, so Liberty fans can only hope that she’s developed. Sugar Rodgers was also acquired from Minnesota – who otherwise likely would’ve cut her – and will happily come off the bench and start firing away. This bench is a lot of different random pieces with the hope that a couple step up and produce.
But back to the stars. Charles is a star center in the women’s game, no question. But after the way she played last year, there are at least a few lingering questions that she needs to answer. She shot 40% from the field, which is atrocious for a center, especially one who’s meant to dominate. Anne Donovan’s system and coaching didn’t help at all, but neither did Charles’s willingness to just keep firing away from outside, rather than working down low and fighting for higher-percentage looks. Chances are, most of that is going to be fixed by Charles caring more about the results, and Laimbeer doing a better job with her than Donovan. But the shooters around her are nearly as poor as they were in Connecticut last year, so defenses will collapse on her a lot in the post once again. Her response can’t be to simply drift further out and avoid the conflict.
Pondexter is probably a bigger concern. She did not produce well last season, shooting a career-low 36% from the field. Some of that was adapting to the ‘lead guard’ role Laimbeer asked her to play – which he’ll be asking her to do again this season – and some of it was the lack of help from her teammates to keep defensive pressure away from her. But some of it might just be basic deterioration in her own play. Her percentages have been awful in Europe for the last two years as well, on a team packed with stars that typically dominates most of its opponents. And she was playing plenty of that ‘lead guard’ role for Fenerbahce as well. The combo of Charles and Pondexter sounds great in theory – a star big and a star guard, playing off each other and attacking defenses from both sides – but only if Cappie can be something like the Cappie of old. The last year or two, Cappie’s been starting to look like she’s just getting old.
So this could be a good team this year. They’re in the weaker conference, they’ve added a star center who should make everything easier for everyone, Laimbeer’s had a year to work out what changed in the WNBA in his absence, and Carson – a fringe all-star calibre talent before her injury – is back in the fold. But there are so many issues still swirling around them. Can the stars be as good as they once were? Can anyone stay healthy? Can any of the role players hit a shot? If everything works out, Liberty fans will have a great year back in the Garden; if it doesn’t, this time next year Laimbeer might be out of a job.